"The Trade" Investigates the Big Business of Heroin from All Sides

By Dorri Olds 02/23/18

"My hope is that people come away with more empathy for everyone. And not just the addicts, but also their families, as well as law enforcement, and the Mexicans. All are trapped in the cycle.”

Two people preparing heroin by a window in a rundown apartment
“I will never give up on my child. One day he’s either going to leave this earth or find his way out.”

It’s easy to feel like a voyeur during the intimate scenes in Showtime’s gripping five-part verité docuseries, The Trade. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) is back, this time with a series about heroin. As with Cartel Land (nominated for an Oscar), Heineman delves into the dangerous world of Mexico’s drug trade. And again, Heineman gains startling access.

The Trade’s executive producer, Pagan Harleman (Chicagoland), told The Fix, “My hope is that people come away with more empathy for everyone. And not just the addicts, but also their families, as well as law enforcement, and the Mexicans. All are trapped in the cycle.”

In this character-driven study that offers a keyhole view into America’s heroin crisis, there are no solutions offered. It is a portrait of the many moving parts of the opioid epidemic. We see close-up views in Guerrero, Mexico, where the most poppies are grown. We witness farmers tending to crops, slicing the poppies open, creating the poppy gum, which becomes the powdered heroin sold to America. After workers parcel it up, the packages are given to drug mules, who hide the drugs in the bottom of cars then transport the heroin across the border and past customs.

We meet Don Miguel, the cartel kingpin in Guerrero. His large-scale heroin production and transport business is so prosperous that his rivals want in on it. But this capo is all about protecting what’s his—the poppy empire, and the poverty-stricken townspeople who he refers to as his responsibility.

It’s hard to say which scenes are more disturbing: those that show Don Miguel recording threatening tapes to be sent to his enemies or listening to his masked sicarios chit-chat about the men they kill. The most chilling scene for me was when the children gather around him. He gives off this aura of a loving grandpa as he tells of his childhood, when there were no gifts from Santa Claus because his family had no money. The children’s dark eyes are rapt. Their faces light up when he surprises them with Christmas presents that their families could never afford. One of the boys runs up to the druglord and asks, “Can I have that gun?” Don Miguel is amused and jokes, “This one already wants a shotgun.”

Most of the cartel’s heroin is sent to the U.S. where plenty of dealers are ready to sell to the ever-growing number of buyers. The equation is simple. It’s Business 101: Supply and Demand. As long as Americans crave heroin, Mexico will keep on providing it.

Next we meet police officers at a customs traffic stop at the U.S.-Mexico border. There are no talking heads in this docuseries; voiceovers narrate the ins and outs of the drug business, which makes it all the more fascinating. Beautifully photographed, the show is compelling and in many parts, episodes play like a thriller: drug sniffing dogs, cars stopped, cops slicing open cushions in vehicles to confiscate large bundles of heroin that were sewn inside. Even the soundtrack is strong, pulling you in without overwhelming.

An official’s voice narrates: “Drug trafficking is the most lucrative illegal trade out there. In my 26 years of law enforcement, I’ve never seen this kind of epidemic before.” He describes Mexicans who come across the border, yearning for the American dream. The compassion in his voice is surprising. There’s no hint of a jaded tough-cop bitching about criminals. Instead, he sounds mournful as he describes the poverty in Mexico and how easy it is to become seduced by the steady payouts of drug trafficking.

Opioids enter through the southwest border, then pass through central Ohio and onward to the East Coast through Baltimore, New York, and Chicago. Suburban areas are targeted now. Although it’s impossible to include everything in a five-hour series, it seems unbalanced to only focus on white suburban kids. Heroin never left urban areas where it continues to kill people of color. Presumably, the show chose to emphasize the shift that dealers now go after neighborhoods with big money.

In Columbus, Detective Mark Edwards drives in pursuit of his suspect.

“Heroin’s a killer,” he says. “It tears people apart. Eats them away. Not only does it affect them but it affects family. Having young children myself, I couldn’t imagine them growing up without me or without their mother.”

So, here’s another cop saddened by the endless unwinnable war. When he says, “I don’t think I’ll ever become numb to this,” I find myself fighting back tears. Edwards brings his car to a stop, peers through binoculars, and radios a sheriff who pulls over a vehicle. A young couple is seated in the front with children in the back. Despite her youth, the scrawny woman on the passenger side has dark crevices under her eyes, rotted teeth, and bad skin. She begins to weep.

“I just want to go home with my kids.” But she’s going to jail and her kids to social services.

Producer Harleman told The Fix. “Behind the statistics and data, behind the problems, and what you read in headlines, we wanted to show the humanity.” They succeeded. The series shows that not everyone attached to the heroin trade is “bad.” It highlights how few options Mexicans have. They take the work that’s available, even if it’s farming poppies, or transporting heroin. Director Heineman makes it clear the choices are not black and white. What would you do in those dire straits?

In America, we see a father placing flowers on his daughter’s grave. “I love you, baby,” he says as tears stream down his face.

A camera zeroes in on Skylar: “I never thought that I would ever be like this.” His anguished mother says, “I know that Skyler would walk over my dead body to get his drug.” Then she adds, hopeful: “I will never give up on my child. One day he’s either going to leave this earth or find his way out.”

A female barely out of her teens confides, “I don’t want my kids looking in my casket.” She puts her head in her hands and weeps.

In an obvious attempt to find a bright side somewhere, one cop says, “We’re getting drug dealers off the street. At least this way we can say we are making a difference.”

There’s barely a word about Big Pharma, which is surprising considering how many people with heroin addiction get hooked first on overprescribed pain meds. When asked, Harleman said, “That is an investigative story that’s being covered [in the media] by phenomenal reporters. While we were shooting, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was starting to sue pharmaceutical [companies]. Now that’s happening in New York. Big Pharma’s role in [the heroin epidemic] is coming out more and that’s going to continue. Obviously, prescription opioids are still a problem. But once we started shooting, it wasn’t as prevalent as it was, say, five years ago with all the pill mills.”

“In terms of storytelling, we focused on what we were seeing and hearing in the field. Law enforcement saying pharmaceuticals are on the downturn; doctors are cutting everybody off. Pharmaceuticals overdoses are on the downtrend. Fentanyl is on the uptrend. The danger now is how many people are overdosing on heroin because it’s cut with fentanyl.”

The last episode talks about the Hope Task Force in Columbus whose goal is to follow up on fatal and nonfatal overdoses within 30 days and help survivors find treatment. We hear Sergeant Smith speak eloquently about his attitudes changing. He had seen people with opioid addictions as just junkies who needed to be thrown in jail. Smith and other cops in the series now understand addiction is a disease.

“I think people will be surprised to see that,” said Harleman. “From episode one, you see what cops deal with on a day-to-day basis. They’ll see families torn apart; a mother and daughter shooting up. They’re put in the position of social worker. Matt [Heinemann] and I chose to let characters speak for themselves. We didn’t want to be agenda-driven. The stories tell themselves. We believe it’s important to see [addiction] as a disease and not a moral failing.”

One message is clear, we’re in a health care crisis of epic proportions. This isn’t a war for law enforcement to win by stopping the supply. What needs be killed is the demand.

Watch the series premiere for free at sho.com/the-trade. Episodes 2–3 are now available for streaming. Episode 4 airs Feb. 23 at 9pm (ET), and the last episode airs on Mar. 2. The entire series will also be available On Demand.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.